I'm a bit of a Grinch. When Halloween rolls around, I turn off the porch light and close the curtains. Each Thanksgiving, I give thanks that I have a friend who hosts the holiday dinner so I don't have to. And I own an artificial Christmas tree with lights already attached because I can't tolerate all those tangled strands.
The one holiday tradition I embrace wholeheartedly is shopping. Perhaps it's because I employ the "one gift for you, two gifts for me" method. This year, though, is different. Like everyone else, I'm cutting back. My husband spent a chunk of the year between jobs, we sprang for some much-needed (and costly) home improvements and, you might have heard, the newspaper business has fallen on tough times.
But I'm not completely abandoning holiday trappings. (I said I'm a Grinch, not a Scrooge.) So I've decided to get crafty. Not Martha Stewart crafty -- there won't be any sewing, carpentry or glue guns involved. But I figured that with some crafty shopping tactics -- and inviting a like-minded girlfriend to spend an enjoyable afternoon or two in the kitchen instead of queuing up for a parking spot at the mall -- I can wake up after the holidays debt-free.
Which brings me to food gifts. I love receiving food gifts for the holidays. But giving them is another thing entirely.
Have you ever noticed that some food gifts -- infused liquors, for example -- can end up costing you more in time, money and hassle than if you had just given someone a good bottle of hooch and called it a day?
So, what to make?
Christmas cookies are a holiday favorite, and they can be economical too. But I wouldn't dream of competing with my mother's spritz cookies -- she sends me about 10 dozen (no exaggeration) each year, and they should be arriving any day now.
The best food gifts I've received over the years have been useful items that do not tug at my conscience or my waistline. (I certainly enjoyed that box of homemade fudge I got last year, but I inhaled the whole thing. My husband never saw it, never even knew about it.)
And my favorites are among the most casual: One friend doled out homemade spice mixes, one for chili, the other a dry rub for ribs, in plastic Baggies that carried a sticker label. From another friend I got a Mason jar filled with her mother's salad dressing, a kind of Thousand Island vinaigrette.
Jars and wraps
With "simple is best" as my mantra, I went shopping. Holiday gifts are so much about the packaging -- and that can be plenty expensive, sometimes more so than the gift inside.
So, I started by cruising several stores looking for food-safe tins, jars, bags and boxes and the like, and quickly realized that nothing would be cheaper than decorative cellophane gift bags, and those tried-and-true Mason jars that you can buy at the supermarket for less than $1 a piece. (Gussy up the metal tops by using pinking shears to cut out two squares from contrasting fabrics, and use ribbon to tie the swatches over the tops.)
Now, on to the most important part. What to put inside?
I started with vanilla-bean sugar. To me, this is a luxury that you'd never make for yourself. And that makes it a perfect gift to give to a baker, or someone who takes their coffee on the sweet side. And it couldn't be easier to make: Sugar, meet vanilla bean.
And it seems kind of kitschy, but once I started thinking about chocolate-covered pretzels, I could not stop. They're sweet, but not too sweet, during a holiday season likely to be drenched in sugar; and kids can make them with adult supervision, and it won't take all night. I had some pretzels, and bought bags of semi-sweet chocolate morsels on sale, and a jar or three of cookie decorations (also on sale), and I was good to go. (Warning: Sanding sugar decorations will turn into a hot mess when they hit the chocolate. You need nonpareil decorations and old-fashioned sprinkles for this job.)
The decorated rods go into a clear cellophane bag and are tied off with festive ribbons for immediate chomping.
I wanted something savory too. I riffed off a recipe I read in Nigella Lawson's new holiday book "Nigella Christmas" and marinated feta cheese cubes in a small Mason jar using liberal doses of garlic powder, dried oregano and red pepper flakes and covered it all with a fruity olive oil. Very easy, with hardly any cleanup. Add a box of crackers, and that's an instant appetizer for a friend who will have endless visitors over the holiday season.
For some salad lovers, I've made garbanzo bean "croutons": rinse, drain and pat dry a can of low-sodium garbanzo beans, drizzle with just enough -- but no more -- canola oil to coat, and then add about 2 to 3 teaspoons of seasoning of your choice. (I went with a Creole seasoned salt.) Bake on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet in a 325-degree oven until golden brown and crunchy all the way through, about 60 to 90 minutes, gently stirring every 15 minutes or so. Let cool completely before adding them to your Mason jars. Once again, there was very little cleanup, and as long as I kept a timer handy, I could watch a movie while this was in the works.
I wanted at least one gift that was a "signature." I turned to granola, of all things -- precisely because I hate most of them. They're almost inevitably too sweet or too fattening. In this version, I use the least amount of fat and sweetener I can get away with -- a quarter-cup of butter, a quarter-cup of honey and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar -- and added a classic flavor combo: coconuts, almonds and dried cherries. More hands-free cooking, plus a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil made for more easy cleanup.
I made a second round of the stores for inexpensive little items to round out my gifts.
I had started filling my cart at one store with a few hand-picked Christmas ornaments . . . when I noticed I could buy a nine-pack box of pretty glass ornaments at Lowe's for roughly the same price as two or three of the fancier ornaments.
Putting it together
Inspired, I had my strategy: I'd buy in bulk, and then break it all down into individual gifts.
I bought a 12-pack of cranberry-scented candles at IKEA, along with some cheapo (but still pretty) frosted glass votives, then a box of copper cookie cutters and a box of assorted jars of cookie decorations at Michaels, as well as a pack of holiday dish towels at Costco. While I was at it, I also picked up two stacks of potholders, which came three to a package. They weren't holiday-colored, but ribbons fixed that.
I spread out the booty on the dining room table and then mixed and matched: A candle, an ornament and some pretzels rods for one friend; some granola, a dish towel and a set of potholders for another. Vanilla sugar, two cookie cutters strung through with a bright red ribbon and a jar of cookie decorations will go to my baker friend.
And so on.
I did individualize some gifts: I splurged and bought a $5 knife sharpener for a friend who has never, ever sharpened her knives. You may wonder how good a $5 knife sharpener can be, and I do too, but it's gotta be an improvement of some sort.
These goodies are all best eaten within a few days, so plan your gift-giving accordingly.
And don't forget the "one for you, two for me" rule.